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by Jim Price

Norine Labitzke of Tallahassee was in her mid 50s when a series of three strokes slammed into her life like a Florida hurricane. She lost cognitive and motor skills, as well as her vision. Being a health professional didn't help much when suddenly she couldn't find the kitchen without knocking something over or banging a knee. She regained her motor skills and cognitive abilities, but the blindness was permanent. Later, multiple sclerosis and a serious infection impaired her mobility. Today, she uses a motorized wheelchair guided by a specially trained Guide Dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind

"At first it was very depressing," she said, shaking her head at the memory. "But I was very fortunate in that in Tallahassee we have wonderful rehabilitation services. I got connected with Light House of the Big Bend and received independent living training, computer training, and some vocational rehabilitation, free-of-charge. And once I was able to come to terms with being blind, I knew I wanted to get a guide dog."

Norine was telling her story during a break from training with her Guide Dog, 2-year-old black Lab, Santino, at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. She attended in-residence training for five days on campus and received another week of training at her home. Santino had recently finished months of specialized training learning to guide a partner in a wheelchair prior to meeting her. He sat patiently at her side as she told her story."

Norine's dog and training were provided free-of-charge through Guide Dogs for the Blind. All of the dogs are trained as mobility assistants for people who are blind. Some, like Santino, are also specially trained to assist a blind person who uses a motorized wheelchair.

Guiding for Norine is no easy task. She is the board chair for Light House of the Big Bend, teaches at Florida State University, is active in her church, volunteers for the Red Cross, mentors at an elementary school and is a disability rights advocate. She said she uses public transit three to five times a day, six days a week, but she's sure Santino is up for it. "He's so confident and relaxed. He's going to be great back home."

"I try to convince people that losing your vision just means a change in your life," she explained. "It doesn't mean your life is over; doesn't mean you are stuck at home. Actually, when I look at the whole spectrum of medical disorders, it's just an inconvenience"

As she talked she reached over to give Santino a pat on his head. "Having a Guide Dog is a wonderful feeling. The instructors are always saying, 'Trust your dog. Trust your dog.' But your instinct is to override him. Once you have a few experiences where your dog has really done the right thing, you find that trust. Now I can just move along with my friends, and talk, and not be concerned about every little thing. I know my dog is not going to let me get into trouble."